Cricket: A batsman for all seasons

By Graeme Wright at Chelmsford Worcester 394 and 250-5 dec Essex 451 Match drawn; It is typical of Graham Gooch that on the morning of his retirement, he should be practising in the nets
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The Americans have an expression for it. The last hurrah. John Ford made a film on just such a theme, with Spencer Tracy as the old man with values and integrity. Somehow I cannot imagine Ford letting Spencer fade out before the film reaches the final reel, but Graham Gooch has been writing his own scripts for some time now. Bowing out in mid-season is typical of the man in many ways.

It is typical of the man, too, that he was in the nets first thing yesterday, practising as usual while the Essex faithful were parking their cars and settling into their seats. They had come in their thousands to pay homage to one of their own, a former captain and the scorer of 30,701 first-class runs for the county, including 94 hundreds. The way the game was going, a 95th looked out of the question until a century sixth-wicket stand for Worcestershire between Graeme Hick and David Leatherdale raised temporary hopes of a Hollywood-style finale. The weather put paid to that, preventing any play between lunch and 4.40.

Hick, 29 not out overnight and possibly relishing relegation to a sub- plot, looked comfortable from his opening stroke - an easy drive to the cover boundary off Peter Such. Next over Leatherdale took three fours off Stuart Law, Worcestershire's bete noir of Friday evening, and the stand was established.

Hick, pulling Ronnie Irani imperiously to reach 50, kept the momentum going so that the century partnership came at almost a run a minute. Just seven runs away from recording his 94th first-class hundred at lunch, having hit 13 fours, he reached it with a six and a single off Paul Grayson when play resumed. Leatherdale's half-century won't do him any harm, either.

For the remaining spectators deprived of a final sight of Gooch at the crease there was the compensation of two overs from the great man before Worcestershire's declaration brought the match, and his playing days, to a close. Fittingly the sun shone as, with a farewell wave, Gooch took his leave between a guard of honour of Worcestershire players.

"I'll miss you all," he told the crowd from the pavilion balcony, after paying a poignant tribute to his parents, team-mates and the county staff. "Thank you very, very much."

Sadly, for what might have been an emotional farewell innings, the heavens had been brooding all morning and at lunch the skies opened. Perhaps they had caught the mood of the day - one of regret that a great career, and an era in Essex cricket, was coming to an end. When Gooch made his debut in 1973, against Northamptonshire at Westcliff on the eve of his 20th birthday, Essex had not won a major prize. Now they can boast six Championships, two victorious Lord's finals, three Sunday League titles and the Refuge Assurance Cup. No wonder the members gave Gooch a standing ovation when he led Essex out on to what was once a field of dreams and yesterday became a field of memories.

My own favourite is his 108 against Nottinghamshire in 1984. It is also one of Gooch's. Richard Hadlee was swinging and seaming the ball unplayably in overcast conditions; lesser mortals perished but Gooch played him like a god.

With innings like that in the memory bank, it is not so difficult to understand why Gooch, even at 44, has decided to call it a day. "He puts his cricket so high," said his long-time friend and batting adviser, Alan Lilley, yesterday. But Gooch has not matched his own high standards this season. "His form is still there," said Lilley, "but he's not making the big scores and now thinks it's time to go. It's sad when someone comes to the end of his time but he's had a long and great career. People respect his attitude and commitment, and if some of the youngsters coming through had his attitude they'd be good cricketers."

More than that in fact. If they followed in Gooch's footprints they would be great ones.